A farmer speaks out

The move toward natural farming is motivated by one very powerful fact: it works and pesticides don't.

by Paul Buxman, reprinted from Farmer to Farmer, with permission
raditionally, when we have had an outbreak of pests, we thought the most simple solution was to kill them. But this has not really worked. If it did, we would not be out there year after year killing them again and again. With pest control, we have often dealt with the obvious problem - the bug itself - without looking for the more obscure cause: a farming system out of balance. This is only natural.
If a fire breaks out in a hay barn, you are not going to sit there asking yourself, "I wonder why that fire broke out?" You are going to extinguish the flames before they spread. There will be time to think of causes later. With the flames out, the immediacy of the problem subsides and we are drawn to other concerns, satisfied that things are safe once again. You would think, however, that after the thirtieth or fortieth time a fire breaks out in the same barn we would decide something must be wrong somewhere and try to discover the cause. Farmers are at that point now. We are tired of putting out the "pest fires" in our fields at great expense. We want to get at the cause of these outbreaks and see if we can't end this continuous fighting of pests.

Pest enhancement

Modern pest control measures do not control pests at all. In fact, they actually help to bring about conditions which favor pest infestation. They might better be described as "Pest Augmentation" or "Pest Evolution Enhancement." Killing pests with poison is a poor way to achieve control. It is only a way to postpone dealing with the actual cause for the infestation. For more than 40 years experience has proven that it does not work. The more a farmer sprays poison, the more he will have to spray. Farms with a disrupted ecology become addicted to pesticides because all natural forms of pest control have been lost.
Why have farmers continued this costly practice of trying to achieve pest control by spraying pesticides, even when information about biological control has been around for years? The reasons are actually quite simple.
Some forty years ago, farmers decided that an eight percent crop loss due to pest damage was too much. They reached for the newly-invented bug killers. One application killed the pests but threw their farm ecologies out of whack. They were forced to reach for other poisons to kill bugs which had been controlled biologically just a few years earlier. One spray led to another. Spray rates, timing, and special mixes became more and more critical. One missed spray or misapplication could spell disaster. With so much at stake, the farmer no longer felt knowledgable enough to make pest control decisions. Enter the pest control advisor, provided "free" by the pesticide supplier. Integrated Pest Management, IPM, which had essentially been occurring naturally on our farms, gave way to a new and very different IPM: Integrated Pesticide Management.
A complete generation has now grown up with the notion that the farmer's essential tasks are spraying, disking and irrigating. To suddenly alter or eliminate any of these tasks can literally create an identity crisis for the farmer.

An act of faith

Part of the problem of converting to natural farming methods is the seeming requirement of "faith" on the part of the farmer. Trusting in something we can't see may be fine for church, but will it work in our field? A 500-gallon spray rig full of poison appears to be the superior weapon against pests when compared to hard-to-see predators that may or may not be out there. Even if they are there, how many pests will they kill? Maybe they won't kill enough to do any good. And if the only way to establish predators is to stop using poison, and it takes a year or so to get them established, what happens to the crops in the mean time? Besides, the poisons have basically been doing their job... haven't they?
Actually, pesticides haven't been doing all that well. With all the different pesticides created since 1940, you would think that the percentage of pest damaged fruit would have been reduced over the years. But instead, the USDA estimates that American farmers are now losing approximately twelve to fifteen percent of their crops to pests each year. That is almost double what we were experiencing before we had all these chemicals. We seem to be going backwards.

New materials, old methods

The transition period which people worry about is also not nearly as dangerous as people may think. Many "gentler and kinder" materials are becoming available today. Soaps, pheromones, certain botanicals, and even some of the old "standby" pesticides, when used at reduced rates, can provide crop protection with a minimum of predator disruption. What happens when you switch to less disruptive materials? You will find that you need less and less pesticide to achieve control. The less you spray, the less you need to spray.
Monitoring pest and predator counts will be necessary through the transition period. A farmer may want to enlist the help of an IPM specialist, such as a member of the Association of Applied Insect Ecologists (AAIE) or other qualified personnel. It will be their main function to help you establish balanced ecological systems which run themselves, requiring as little chemical input as possible. This doesn't exactly mean, however, that you can totally relax. Farmers should observe their fields daily. The farmer's observations plus the weekly visits by the IPM advisor will yield the most informed decision making.
When our farms become more natural, many good things begin to happen. We save money, protect air and water quality, revitalize our soils and improve fruit quality. It's not so hard. Spray as little as possible, encourage habitat for beneficial insects, raise cover crops, and spread manure, compost or other organic wastes once in a while. While it may not always be easy, it may be simpler than you think.

Paul Buxman is a second generation farmer in Reedley, CA. Working with Fred Smeds, a third generation farmer, Paul founded the California Clean Growers Association in 1988. Farmer to Farmer is a publication that has grown out of their work to promote "cleaner, less complicated, less costly farming practices." The publication supports farmers with "how to" information, relevant research, reports on important issues, and by creating a forum for farmers to ask questions, get answers, and report on their own problems and results. Published 6 times/year, subscriptions are $15/yr. For subscriptions, call 1-800-852-3832.
Farmer To Farmer, P.O. Box 73674, Davis, CA 95617. Phone (916) 756-7428; Fax (916) 756-7857. E-mail f2figc.apc .org.